If nothing changes and statistical patterns hold, the U.S. church will continue to shrink in size and influence. But that’s not our only option.
By Aaron Earls
“You have two choices: change your habits or die.” Sometimes we need doctors to speak directly about the damage we’re doing to our bodies. They intend the seemingly harsh words to awaken us to the consequences we’re facing so we’ll adjust our lifestyles.
The church in the U.S. can’t get a similar, rousing diagnosis, but we can look at recent research that paints a troubling portrait.
The 2022 State of Theology study demonstrates the American public’s confusion about or maybe contradiction toward historic Christian theology. Unfortunately, the issues extend to many Christians in the U.S.
Additionally, Pew Research projections assert the number of U.S. Christians will fall below 50% of the population in the coming decades. But would we really argue most Americans are following Jesus today? According to Pew, 64% of U.S. adults identify as Christian, yet the General Social Study finds only a third of Americans attend religious services at least monthly.
The level of religious identification and involvement only decreased during the pandemic. A recent Lifeway Research study found 34% of Christians attended at least weekly prior to COVID. Now, only 26% say the same. The most recent State of Theology study found a 15 percentage point increase (39% to 54%) in evangelicals who believe worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.
If nothing changes and all the statistical patterns hold, the U.S. church will continue to shrink in size and influence. But that’s not the only choice we have. Instead, we can change our habits. These five paths can change the potential catastrophe awaiting the American church.
1. Pray for God to act
If God is not involved, every effort churches make will be in vain. Before taking any practical steps, pastors and leaders must ask God to intervene. Reading through Scripture, you often see divine action at the moment of human inability. This is the time we need His grace and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Statistics and predictive models cannot account for revival, but neither can we manufacture one. We can pray and ask God to get involved. Then we can move in obedience to the instructions He’s already given us.
2. Repent of our sins
It may seem odd for repentance to be the first tangible action of recovery, but it’s similar to how we can’t make positive changes to our health without first stopping the negative actions. Before we move forward, we must acknowledge and repent of our previous failures.“There are countless ways in which we—as leaders, as churches, and as the church in America—have failed to follow Jesus faithfully. For this, we must humble ourselves and repent.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
The U.S. church has elevated charisma over character and pragmatism over piety. We have prioritized increasing power for dangerous leaders instead of providing care for hurting people. We have traded biblical beliefs for cultural cachet. There are countless ways in which we—as leaders, as churches, and as the church in America—have failed to faithfully follow Jesus. For this, we must humble ourselves and repent.
3. Teach God’s Word
While it is certainly true that people both outside and within the church have been increasingly rejecting historic Christian theology, the State of Theology study makes it clear that many don’t actually know what the Bible teaches. Churches must prioritize teaching and applying Scripture.
Reevaluate every program and practice of the church. Does it help people know the Bible better? Does it help them live out biblical truths better? Many activities may be good or nice to have, but at this time, church leaders should make sure the people in their congregations understand Scripture and are seeking to live their lives according to its truths.
4. Retain young adults
The biggest reason for Christianity’s decline in Pew’s projections is young adults no longer identifying as Christian and instead becoming unaffiliated. Lifeway Research found 66% of those who regularly attend church as a teenager drop out for at least a year as a young adult. Some return but most do not currently attend regularly.“We should not expect the next generation to fully adapt to the preferences of previous generations, while never being given the option to biblically express their faith in a manner unique to them.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
As churches examine how their activities align with Scripture teaching and application, they should also evaluate their methodology to see if it is as effective today as it may have been in previous decades. Are there programs that could be dropped or changed to better reach the next generation? Do you have opportunities for service and leadership for teenagers and young adults? Are they expected to adapt to the traditions and preferences of previous generations, while never given the option to biblically express their faith in a manner unique to them?
5. Share the gospel in our communities
As churches ask for God to guide them, repent of their mistakes, faithfully teach and apply Scripture, and keep the next generation plugged in, reaching those outside the church is the next step, but it will also be the logical result. People want to belong, and they definitely want to belong to a group that is loving and caring to each other.
The church that firmly but lovingly stands for biblical truth will stand out in the culture. It may not initially draw in everyone, but it will make people curious. And as members go out into the community, they cannot help but tell people about how Jesus has changed their lives and the difference their church family is making in their lives.“The dire warning signs facing the church don’t have to become a reality, but they should wake us up to what could be the case.” — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Currently, according to Lifeway Research, only 43% of Christians say they’ve invited a non-Christian friend or family to a service or program at church in the past six months and just 38% have shared how to become a Christian. For the church to not only stop the demographic decline but reverse it, Christians must develop a passion for those who don’t follow Jesus that compels them to share their faith.
The dire warning signs facing the church don’t have to become a reality, but they should wake us up to what could be the case. We must commit ourselves to pray, repent, teach, retain, and share so that the American church can have a clean bill of health in the future.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.